Crow Wing County employees are suing the county, charging an unfair labor practice charge related to pay increases.
The civil lawsuit was brought by employees from some, but not all, the county’s unions.
In their complaint, the county employees said they are seeking the action under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) for relief from the “unfair labor practice that the county has committed by acting unilaterally in violation of the expired collective bargaining agreements (CBAs).”
The unions contend the negotiated contracts, although expired, continue to be in effect with PELRA, which gives employees the right to meet and negotiate employment conditions through their representative. The county’s action “constitutes a refusal to meet and negotiate in good faith with the exclusive representation of its employees” in violation of state law, the lawsuit states.
Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle said there are two kinds of pay increases in the county’s current system. One has automatic step increases with a range of 2-5 percent per year. Cost of living adjustments or COLAs have added an additional 1.5 percent to 3 percent per year to all but two of the county’s labor contracts, which in view of economic conditions agreed to forego COLA increases in 2010 and 2011.
Last fall, the county notified employees step increases would not continue after current contracts expired. The county announced it was pursuing a performance-based pay system for 2012 and 2013. Later, the county reported it modified its proposal to offer a 2 percent increase to all employees in 2012 and 2013. Two unions accepted. The others did not.
“Some unions have elected to pursue legal action to require the county to advance step increases even though the contracts with those unions have expired and we are in negotiations over this very issue.”
On May 2, the issue went before the court. Crow Wing County judges recused themselves from hearing the case so it went before an Itasca County judge. A decision was originally expected by Friday, May 11, but was postponed without a new date set.
The unions are represented by Duluth attorney Pamela R. Galanter, from the Jane Cahill Poole law firm.
If the judge grants the union employees’ request, Crow Wing County reported it will be required to issue step increases of 2-5 percent this year for about 60 percent of its employees. A 2 percent raise for an employee making $10 is 20 cents an hour, or represents an increase of $1 per hour for an employee making $50 an hour.
Houle said 85 percent of private firms link pay and performance but fewer public entities do that although the public dissatisfaction with automatic pay increases has grown.
Houle said he has no interest in creating acrimony with the county’s unions, which he said are the county’s business partners.
“We want to work things out at the bargaining table,” Houle said.
Houle said the county spends considerable effort to compare local and regional salaries because the goal is to attract and retain quality employees by being competitive for wages and benefits. The county is committed to constructing a performance-based pay system with the unions. Houle said Dakota, Scott and Sherburne counties have performance-based pay plans in effect and other have moved away from automatic pay increases.
The county reported in the past 10 years, from 2003 to 2012, operating expenses have increased $10,821,227 with 89.5 percent due to increased personnel costs while staffing levels have changed from 401 full time equivalents to 417 in 2012.
During the recession, the county had layoffs and voluntary staff reductions, reduced overtime, implemented pay freezes for management and elected officials and reduced the tax levy.
In the lawsuit, the unions reported the collective bargaining units state if a new agreement is not reached before the old one expires, all benefits shall remain in effect until a new agreement is concluded so wage scales based on the employees job and number of years in service would continue, such as the step advances each year.
The lawsuit states the unions demanded to bargain with the county over the unilateral decision to freeze the step increases and filed a grievance in January but the county denied all grievances on this issue.